are you hungry are the sweetest words

By Kyunghee Chen

January 15, 2021

are you hungry are the sweetest words 

you didn’t ask me how my day was, or how i am feeling
words of i love you never left your heart

but your love was hidden
like a treasure to be found-
to be treasured

your love was in the warm bowl of rice
that hugged by belly
it was in the kimchi that you marinated
your own tired hands
it was in the hours and miles in your day
to forage herbs for our banchan, as you thought of me

your love was in you reaching over, across the table
to feed me, even when i said no
annoyingly (i was in adult) 

it was in the words
are you hungry?
which was a statement, never a question

your love was hidden, like a treasure
and i have found it

so even when
our dinner table conversations remain silent
and awkwardness was our norm
i have found your love

i consume your love
deep within my belly
and into my soul
leaving me, always hungry
for more. 

Everyone says food is the universal language of love. Somehow I missed it. 

My family and I immigrated to the US when I was 8 years old and since then, all I could remember was that our days were a blur. My sister and I attended a public school nearby, trying to fake our way into the language, the culture- everything.  And as for my parents, they worked in various factories from dawn to dusk 6 days a week. Survival was the theme for most of our days together. I remember feeling lonely and as a kid, I craved the “i love you”s, “you’re doing great”, a hug, or even a pat on the back. At school when kids talked about going “Up North” on weekends or on a holiday, I sat silently forcing a smile on my face when all I wanted to do was cry. 

For the longest time, I resented my parents for not taking us anywhere- for not giving me a story to share at school- for not spending time as a family. 

About 6 years ago or so, my husband and I were at my parents’ house and I was looking through some old photos. What I didn’t see were family vacation photos because that didn’t exist. What I did notice were a few photos of my parents at their factory jobs and at their dry cleaning store. In these photos, I gradually saw them get older. I also noticed their eyes- eyes that screamed survival and equally, hope. I knew, at that moment, the hope was not about them. It was for their 2 young girls.

We get ready to sit down to eat dinner as my umma brings out all her homemade banchans, scoops out a warm bowl of rice for each of us as I help her get dang-jang-jigae (soybean paste soup) for us. My dad, who said nothing until now, asks “are you hungry?”. The question that gets asked too many times in our household feels like not enough for once. It feels warm, like a hug.

I never actually knew how poor we were growing up. There was no way of knowing from the way my umma feeds us. There was never a lack of delicious homemade Korean meals. The thing is, we had family dinners every single night growing up and I know even this is a rare occasion in many families now. 

Everyone has their own language of saying I love you. You just have to see it with your heart, not your eyes.

Here I share with you a poem, a love letter to my parents.